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COVID-19 infects majority of residents at senior care facility for mentally ill

Gibraltar Senior Living, located in the Parkland area of unincorporated Tacoma, has experienced an outbreak of COVID-19 among its residents and staff. The long-term care facility serves formerly homeless and mentally ill residents.
Kari Plog
Gibraltar Senior Living, located in the Parkland area of unincorporated Tacoma, has experienced an outbreak of COVID-19 among its residents and staff. The long-term care facility serves formerly homeless and mentally ill residents.

State officials are investigating how COVID-19 managed to infect a majority of residents at a Pierce County long-term care facility, which houses many residents who are formerly homeless and suffering from severe mental illness. 

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department announced earlier this week that at least 34 cases had been identified among 66 residents and staff at Gibraltar Senior Living, located in the Parkland area.

The first case, an employee, was discovered April 9. Three days later, the first resident tested positive. It took a week after the first case was identified to test the remaining residents and staff at Gibraltar. 

In total, 27 residents were infected — more than half of the 46 currently housed there — and four of them were hospitalized. Seven employees were infected. 

As of Thursday afternoon, the health department had not reported any deaths associated with the outbreak. But Salan Weyer, the facility’s administrator, told KNKX Public Radio that she learned Tuesday one resident had died at a local hospital. 

Chris Wright, a spokesman with the state Department of Social and Health Services, confirmed his agency has launched an investigation into the facility, which serves formerly homeless residents and people suffering from mental illness.

“We house people who have nowhere else to go,” said Weyer, who runs day-to-day operations at Gibraltar. In the past year, the facility’s license was transferred into her name, and  she says she’s been working to acquire ownership of the building.

Weyer said she took steps to prevent the virus from entering her facility, then worked to contain it once it did. But, she says, her residents made that complicated. 

“We tried to convince the residents not to leave the facility,” she said, stressing that many of them deal with severe mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia.

“These people wander," she said. "They are free to come and go. It was hard for them to understand, relating to their mental health issues, that they couldn’t leave.”

Weyer said her residents develop close relationships with one another, and often don’t want to be separated from their roommates. They share cigarettes and, when the pandemic first started, refused to wear masks. They’re all wearing them now, she added.

“Anything out of their routine just upsets (them),” Weyer said. “So, we let them watch the news and hear about the virus, while we were educating them.”

In March, Weyer says she instituted a policy that employees couldn’t work second jobs, to limit possible exposure.

“One employee didn’t follow guidelines,” Weyer said. “She was the first person who tested positive.”

Steve Metcalf, a spokesman for the county health department, said the employee first showed symptoms on April 6 and stopped working after that.

“The employee got tested the next day,” Metcalf said in an email. “We suspect people with COVID-19 can be infectious about two days before the onset of symptoms.”

Alpha Cottage, the Gig Harbor-based LLC that operates Gibraltar, could face fines or other enforcement actions if investigators find that “lapses in infection control contributed to the outbreak,” Wright, the DSHS spokesman, said in an email Friday morning. He said his agency has conducted nearly 2,000 inspections at long-term care facilities since early March.

In a news release earlier this week, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department said about 15 percent of Pierce County’s COVID-19 cases were identified in congregate care settings. As of Thursday, there were more than 1,200 reported cases. That means the outbreak at this one facility represents just under 18 percent of the county’s total congregate-care cases, according to the latest numbers released by the agency.

Statewide, 221 long-term care facilities out of roughly 4,000 have at least one positive case so far, according to DSHS.

In its news release, the county health department detailed immediate steps taken to advise Gibraltar’s operators on best practices for mitigating the spread of the virus. Metcalf says that included limiting visitors, staggering meals and strict use of personal protective equipment, among other guidelines.

Weyer, a longtime nurse, says she followed orders. Visitation ended March 16, well before the outbreak, and staff offered meal service more frequently to allow more distance in the dining hall. But, Weyer stressed, most residents “can’t comprehend what’s going on.”

The best chance for answers about this outbreak will come at the end of three ongoing investigations: two by county and state health officials and another by DSHS, which regulates long-term care facilities. KNKX has requested records from several public agencies, which couldn’t immediately fulfill those requests.

In the meantime, Weyer says she’ll continue doing what she can. 

Initially, she set aside a room to isolate residents who tested positive. Now, it’s a room to isolate the few who tested negative.

News Coronavirus Coverage
Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.